History Lessons

I’m taking advantage of being in the southern U.S. this summer by giving myself some American Civil War history lessons. I’ve decided that rather than WWII, the Civil War is the one that should be called “The Big War”. Although it didn’t involve other countries, I think it had more of a lasting impact on this country. Maybe it’s because I’m African-American that, in my mind, it’s the war that is the most significant in U.S. history. We still live with some of its obvious and not-so-obvious symbols.

Civil War Cemetery in VA

But it’s a hard war to completely understand. Multi-layered, prickly and complex, it was a briar patch of a war. I don’t know about you but I was only taught the superficial ” blue and gray, we freed the slaves” aspects in primary and secondary schools. (I was too busy partying and trying not to flunk out  to take challenging classes in college.) The biggest hole in my knowledge though, and the reason I’m undertaking these lessons is because I come from a family that ran from the enormous effects of slavery and the Civil War. I don’t just mean my family was part of the Great Migration although they were. I mean that the familial response to this part of American history was to deny and detach from the effects. All African-Americans have to face the legacy of slavery and we have varying ways of doing it. Some in my family chose to detach because they believed in the American Dream and so to believe they had to deny the things that made it untrue. They wanted to endeavor, achieve or fail and believe that the outcomes were the result of their own doing. I’m of the “Outliers” school of thought. “It’s not enough to ask what successful people are like…It is only by asking where they are from that we can unravel the logic behind who succeeds and who doesn’t.”* I believe that the American Dream has a subtext in which slavery is a large factor. But some of my family who were actually from the south (but who have passed on) denied that subtext, choosing instead to detach from the past and redefine themselves. Some went so far as to change the birth cities to ones in the north on their birth certificates, much like when Jews anglicized their last names. They didn’t forgive or tolerate those who acknowledged what history had done to them. And so, much of my family history was concealed and then forgotten.

I choose not to deny and detach. I want to uncover and learn as much about the history that was too painful for many of my ancestors. So while I’m here in the south I’m visiting the sites, reading, reflecting and trying to understand more about the Civil War. And I’m honoring family who lived here before me. I don’t think they had the choices that I do.

Next week I’m going to a living history program. They’ll be asking attendees their thoughts on the effects of the War. I’ll let you know about the responses in a future post. What are your thoughts?

(Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Galdwell, Little, Brown & Co., 2008. * I did read the book but to be honest, the quote is from the summary on Wikipedia. I left my copy at home.)

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